Commentary Magazine

The Sacred and the Profane, by Mircea Eliade

The Nature of Religion
The Sacred and the Profane.
by Mircea Eliade.
Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask. Harcourt, Brace. 256 pp. $4.50.


There is matter enough in Mircea Eliade’s study of The Sacred and the Profane to scandalize the scholar and to offend the philosopher. But the majority of discerning readers will take delight in this book. For we have here a lucid intelligence, supported by enormous erudition, expressing his views with literary art, in a volume that seduces the imagination as it provokes the intellect.

The first scandal to scholarship is that, as in Frazer’s Golden Bough, Mr. Eliade ranges through a great variety of religions looking, not for their differences, but for their resemblances. His examples are taken from the Mesopotamians, the Indians, the Chinese, the Kwakiutl, and other primitive peoples. He is interested in finding the larger meanings which may emerge from such a synoptic view. Of course, any respectable anthropologist could tell Mr. Eliade that this sort of thing just isn’t done nowadays. The current intellectual fashion prescribes that we engage in piecemeal and picayune analyses. Since the rest of us cannot get our feet off the ground, we have proved that you can’t fly, anyway. But Mr. Eliade, who is chairman of the department of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, soars gracefully in contempt of the earthbound.

His exposition begins with the two basic categories of space and time. For the religious man there are the sacred places—the pillar, the hearth, the well, the stone, the mountain, the capital, the temple. And there is the sacred place, which is the center of the world, the navel of the cosmos. There is also sacred time—festal time, liturgical time—which is neither continuous nor homogeneous. Each particular creation has its own time; so “time gushes forth with the first appearance of a new category of existents.” Sacred times, moreover, are reversible, so that ritualistically we can re-enter the time of origin and so achieve a recreation of being. Thus we may live in an “eternal mythical present.”

It is toward the conclusion of this part of Mr. Eliade’s exposition that we begin to wonder uneasily about Judaism and Christianity. The author has already acknowledged our difficulties, but has lightly passed them by. The first difficulty is that Judaism in its evolution comes to transcend the sacred place. Both Jerusalem and the Temple may continue as sacred memories, but the experience of exile showed that the Law could reach to the far ends of the earth. The other difficulty is that Christianity—in this respect the heir of Judaism—came to transcend the idea of a sacred time. For the Incarnation does not so much mark one sacred time as it gives a sacral character to all of time. Thus sacred times and sacred places are peripheral rather than central to these two religions.

Mr. Eliade goes on with a discussion of cosmic religion and the sacredness of nature. Here he speaks of sky, water, earth, of woman, sex, fecundity, of the cosmic tree, and the miraculous fruit. He cites the ease of the Indian chief who refused to till the ground:

You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s bosom? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die, I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men! But how dare I cut off my mother’s hair?

He also considers the analogy of body-house-cosmos in some detail, and informs us, among other things, that “ritual nudity implies an atemporal model, a paradisal image.”

Throughout all this, the unconventional thing in his thesis is the rejection of any naturalistic explanations. For the religious man the sacral is prior to the natural. There is not something in sky, or stone, or sex that is intrinsically good and requires celebration. It is rather that any of these things may be the occasion of a hierophany—a manifestation of the sacred. In the introduction Mr. Eliade cites Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy, with its emphasis upon the mysterium tremendum, the mysterium fascinans, the majesty of overwhelming power, the “wholly other” quality of the numinous. The truly religious man begins with this feeling for the holy, and uses it to interpret his entire cosmos. He does not artificially attach the holy to some pre-existent but impressive natural function.



Some readers may wish to quarrel with this thesis, which appears quite early in the volume. But to this critic the most startling implication of Mr. Eliade’s exposition lies in the intent, finally, to eliminate all of the great historic religions. The author confesses soon enough his difficulties with Judaism and with Christianity. About half way along we learn that the doctrine of cosmic cycles in Hinduism is a desacralized affair, emptied of religious content. Eventually we are warned that “Greece, India, China do not take the Western intellectual beyond the sphere of complex and highly developed religions with a large written sacred literature. To know some part of these sacred literatures, to become familiar with some oriental or classical mythologies does not yet suffice for a comprehension of the mental universe of homo religiosus.”

What, then, is this “religious man,” who in effect has nothing to do with Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, Gautama, Confucius, or Zoroaster? Obviously he is something primordial, ahistorical, that existed before man began to become in any way significantly human. From the idea of the holy of this “religious man” not only must we delete any symbol of holiness as it is revealed in the historic faiths, but we must subtract those two things which Otto and all the mystics who follow him hold in contempt—i.e., man’s reason and man’s morality. If therefore modern man casts aside this view of the sacred, it is still a question whether he is rejecting religion, or making a first effort to discover it.

One may question the adequacy for our time of Mr. Eliade’s “religious man.” But that such a man once looked upon life in his own primitive way, and perhaps still peeps occasionally through the lids of a more sophisticated descendant, there can be no doubt. Mr. Eliade has written in simplicity and in beauty of the vision of that “religious man,” and so has allowed us the opportunity to enlarge our own imaginations.



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